A Sketch of the New Zealand War
Maori Surprise Attacks XII
On the 28th December another expedition was organized. We marched in great silence at two o'clock in the morning, and arrived at Mate-Riko-Riko at dawn.
It was a lovely morning. The languid summer air, moistened by evaporating dew, soothed our weary limbs as we lay stretched on the ground. I was on duty with the advanced guard. I was a complete stranger both to officers and men, and had not even selected an orderly. With a few surgical appliances in my haversack and some ship biscuits in the pocket of my blue jumper, I rested apart under the shelter of a clump of fern. The men had stacked their arms, and were lying about smoking. Their officers (I think) had returned to their regimental headquarters for a hurried breakfast. I listened to the conversation of the soldiers.
They were discussing the folly and absurdity of the whole war, declaiming against the in-page 106justice which bound them to a service for a shilling a day, subject to stoppages, whilst a useless volunteer received half a crown a day and full liberty to disobey orders if he liked. Public opinion in the advance guard verged on sedition, when suddenly, like a transformation scene in a pantomime, the Maori were amongst us. I was stricken with terror and dazed with admiration. The Maori, with their tongues out, eyes starting out of their heads, jumping from side to side like panthers, flourishing their tomahawks, shaking the feathers of their taias in our very noses, presented a dreadful spectacle. Our men rose in a panic, rushed to their stacked arms, which were unloaded, and clean bolted. A few men were wounded at my feet. One in particular, shot in the thigh and bleeding profusely, looked in my face with the eye the sheep casts on the butcher as the knife is descending. Great God! what was I to do? If I remained, I would be tomahawked. Desert the wounded man I could not. Suddenly I had an inspiration.
I jumped up from the side of the stricken soldier, fired one barrel of my revolver at the nearest Maori, and yelled out, "Tipperary to the rescue!"page 107
The running soldiers turned like a flock of starlings.
"Give them the point of the bayonet, boys!" I shouted.
The revulsion was immediate. One great yell, "Tipperary!" went up to heaven. The Maori disappeared like a bad dream, and I made off with my wounded.
It is true, so great for the moment was the panic, I had to stop some of the retreating men with my pistol, and force them to carry off the wounded. For this little service I was introduced by a singularly gallant man, our Chief Medical Officer, to the General for notice in despatches. I was all dishevelled, my hands and clothes stained in blood. The General said:"He is too young to mention in despatches. At the least, he might have washed his hands."
I was not such a fool as to expect to be mentioned in despatches. The fact was, I had rallied the men to save myself and the wounded; and as soon as I could, I got out of danger. There was no particular bravery in my conduct. You cannot praise a non-combatant officer for rallying soldiers without degrading combatant officers. In this case there was no combatant officer present. Was page 108the General likely to confess such a breach of discipline? I held my tongue scrupulously, and the whole incident was passed over as though it had never happened. All the same, the Chief Medical Officer came to me a few days later, and said:—
"You shall accompany the next assaulting party. It is going to be a serious affair, and, if you come out of it all right, 'you shall be mentioned in despatches.'The General has promised it."
I experienced a cold chill down my spinal column. I thought, "Damn your despatches!"
I said, "Understand, I will do anything I am ordered; but, in my opinion, no glory is worth a bullet wound."
He, who was covered with medals, and wore the Victoria Cross, looked at me with scarcely smothered contempt. He was never as friendly afterwards.
The General changed his mind about the assault. Perhaps, if it had come off, I would not have been detailed for that duty. The surprise at Mate-Riko-Riko, with other considerations, changed the whole conduct of the Taranaki war. The General made up his mind to approach Wiremu Kingi's fighting pa, page 109Puke-Rangiore, by sap. The occupation of Mate-Riko-Riko left its front open to us. We made clear our base of operations by making a roadway one chain wide all the way to Waitara. The lesson afforded by the evacuated Tataramika pa, previously described, lived in the General's mind. He decided no fighting pa was practicable for a storming party. An earthwork with flanking angles was thrown up. Our ammunition and provisions were placed in this under a strong guard. All the fern and scrub near us was cleared away. Double pickets were placed in various directions. Double sentries patrolled all night.
We then advanced about 400 yards by sap, rolling before us a huge gabion (wicker roller). Then we erected another redoubt—an earthwork with flanking angles. In this we encamped about 150 men. Double sentry duty was enforced inside each of these works all night.
We then pushed on our sap about 400 yards. All this advancing was, of course, daily and hourly resisted by the Maori.
Here we erected a large earthwork, without flanking angles, to accommodate 300 men. It was called No. 3 redoubt. The precautions at this point were redoubled, because the ridge on page 110which we were advancing fell away here to the left, and was lost in a gentle slope about fifteen yards distant from our fortification. There had been some discussion about the wisdom of construction without flanking angles, but, as the force was so large and time an element of importance, it was determined to hurry on. It was considered quite safe, as our men occupied at this time the head of the sap each night.
From this point the sap proceeded more slowly, as every inch of the ground was disputed by the Maori. We erected in time No. 4 redoubt, to contain 150 men; and Nos. 5 and 6 redoubts, with flanking angles, containing together about 600 men.
We were now about 250 yards from the Puke-Rangiore pa, well within range of the Maori rifle-pits, yet our precautions were such that we scarcely ever had a man wounded.
Our safe and near approach aggravated the Maori beyond endurance. Having received reinforcements from Waikato, in the shape of a body of men who came to seek utu (revenge) for Waitini Taiporutu's death, the Maori determined to assume the offensive.
Our six redoubts were in exact line. All of them were of the same width. Thus every flanking angle within rifle range commanded page 111the approach to its neighbour's side. Therefore No. 3 redoubt, though unprovided with flanking angles, had its approach on the sides protected by Nos. 2 and 4 redoubts. Each redoubt projected its earthen wall about five feet above the level of the ground, and was surrounded by a ditch about four feet deep and proportionately wide.
The Maori picked a storming party of 130 men. They crept along one very dark night till they came to No. 3 redoubt, where the land sloped off to the left of our earthwork. Here each Maori singly crept on his belly till he got into the ditch, where in time the whole storming party lay breathlessly still.
Lieutenant Jackson of the 40th was the officer on duty for the night. The sentry reported that there was some scratching noise going on in the ditch. Lieutenant Jackson got on the top of the earthen wall and peered over. He said to the sentry,—
"There is nothing. It is all quiet. It is as dark as pitch."
The sentry replied, "I did hear something, sir."
Jackson said, "Hold me hard by the legs; I will reach down and see. I do not want to alarm the camp."page 112
As Jackson leant further over, an impatient Maori shot him through the head.
The sentry roared out, "Man the defences!"
Immediately the Maori in the ditch swarmed over. They had cut steps in the earthen wall with their axes. Our men all slept in their clothes, with their arms stacked hard by. The Maori were met by the bayonet. One Maori, as he was mounting the ditch, was run through the body. He seized the soldier's rifle in both hands. The soldier never thought of letting go, and, as the Maori and soldier were thus fixed, the Maori crept over their wounded comrade's back.
In the meantime the assaulting party's allies commenced a furious attack on the front, sides, and rear of No. 6 redoubt. It was all futile. The men from Nos. 1, 4, and 5 redoubts hurried up at the double, and took the Maori on each flank. The affair was over in a few moments, and, as usual, the Maori left very few wounded or killed on the field. Of course, the darkness of the night favoured the escape.
Indeed, in any case, live shells constantly thrown into the ditch made the Maori position at No. 3 untenable, and, as surprise was the essence of the scheme, the storming party at once gave up the enterprise. By this time all page 113the friendship between the races was over. We were in the death-grips with each other. The Maori knew our military customs perfectly. We had never once been caught asleep, yet they backed their gallantry against all our precautions, and expected to cut our whole force in two in the middle of the night. Not often was a braver military achievement attempted.
Were I to try and describe to you the agonizing shame the Maori experienced at this defeat, I should suffer too much. Suffice it to say, the wounded and dying could not lift up their heads. They kept on declaring they were cowards, slaves, and the sons of slaves. The glory of their race was gone. Defeat, disgraceful, overwhelming defeat. They wanted no water nor care for their wounds. They wished only for annihilation, and that their people should not live to hear of their feebleness in war.
Fine men, the odds were nothing to them. Were they not the descendants of the greatest warriors that ever trod the earth? And these soldiers. Alas! alas! Had they not been skulking behind earthworks for nearly a year? Oh, shame! shame! This defeat hardened into steel the whole Maori race. They deter-page 114mined to die hard. But die they now knew they must. Our attack, of course, proceeded in the ordinary way. The big roller crept on nearer and nearer the pa. Our men no longer slept in the sap. Large patrols took their place. The Maori at night tried to destroy our works. The patrols fought them with varying fortunes, and drove them off.
About this time Colonel Warre arrived from India. The General took him out and showed him the Maori position.
"What would you advise, Colonel?"
"Well, you see, I am accustomed to these niggers. You perceive that little eminence to the right rear? Well, I would seize that, pour in a flanking fire from that position, making a detour to the left with a few companies of men, and then storm the pa along that ridge on the right front."
The General gazed at him, and turned nearly green.
"It is an excellent proposal, Colonel. You shall see for yourself."
The General ordered 400 as handsome soldiers as the eye ever rested upon to deploy to the right and seize that little hill. The men advanced gallantly, and then wavered: the Maori, silent and deadly, were all lying ready page 115in their rifle-pits, each man armed with a double-barrelled smooth-bore. They would have reserved their fire till our men were within forty yards, then delivered a volley at the soldiers'legs, and, skipping out of their rifle-pits, would have disappeared in the forest, leaving a host of our men dead on the field.
"What do you say now, Colonel?"
The bugles sounded the recall, and we all went back to our fortifications. The soldiers knew the Maori far better than Colonel Warre did, and their morale had been damaged by melancholy experience.
Had the General insisted, the men would have carried the position, but at what a loss! Colonel Warre's presence and contemptuous manner were not acceptable to General Pratt. He was sent to take command of the Auckland district.page 116